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Is Intervention in Syria the Answer?

What To Do About Syria

Speakers: Ryan Crocker, Dean, Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University; Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Charles W. Dunne, Director, Middle East and North Africa Programs, Freedom House; Former Director for Iraq, National Security Council Staff, and Paul Pillar, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Security Studies Program, Georgetown University; Former National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Central Intelligence Agency
Presider: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
May 1, 2014
Council on Foreign Relations

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HAASS: I want to welcome everybody to today's meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations here in our nation's capital, where we've skipped spring and gone straight to summer. The subject is an important one, and a difficult one, and a painful one, what to do about Syria.

The good news, and it might be the rare good news we're going to hear over the next hour and 15 minutes, is that we have three people who are as well-suited to discuss this problem, and this challenge, as any I can think of.

Ryan Crocker, who is the dean down at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M, and was obviously, as I think all of you know, U.S. ambassador to many places, but including Syria.

Charles Dunne, who directs the Middle East and North Africa programs at Freedom House and a former director on the National Security Council staff responsible for Iraq. And to my immediate right here, Paul Pillar, who is the nonresident senior fellow in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, and he was formerly the NIO, the National Intelligence Officer, for the near East and south Asia at the CIA.

I had the good fortune actually of working with all three of these gentlemen, in our various incarnations when we were all in government. This is, I think, the fourth, if my memory serves me right, in this series, this What To Do About series.

And the idea is to take a pressing public policy question, take people who are scholar practitioners with considerable experience, and to have not a mock National Security Council meeting, but a meeting that is NSC-like, as opposed to NSC lite. I could riff on that, but I won't. I will behave.

And -- but everyone is here in his capacity, if you will, as a wise man, as a counselor, as a minister without portfolio, rather than representing this or that department or agency, and in this way, each is free to opine, give thoughts, give prescriptions about any aspect of the issues under discussion.

We'll go on for 30 or so minutes, plus or minus, then we'll open it up to you, our members, to pursue anything we've put on the table, or haven't been thoughtful enough to put on the table, and then we'll wrap up for a few minutes at the -- at the end. So that is the approach.

So let's -- before we get to the options, and to vet them, what I really want to do is first begin with -- with -- with two other aspects. One is I want to make sure that we set the scene fairly and accurately and comprehensively.

And secondly, then, I want to revisit why this matters to us. So first, let's -- let's set the scene. I'll mention a few things, and then you all know more about it than I do, so let's -- and then fill in.

But the most recent statistics suggest that over the past three or so years, roughly 150,000 individuals have been -- have lost -- have been killed. The number of IDP's, internally displaced, essentially people who are homeless within borders, is upwards of 5 million, and I see numbers as high as 6.5 million. And the numbers of individuals who have -- who have become refugees, essentially people who are homeless across borders, is now in the neighborhood of 2.5 million.

So we're -- if you add up the total number of homeless, you're talking about what, 9 million people out of a population of roughly twice that, give or take. So it's just an extraordinary -- I mean, you think about any other country in the world, you think about this scale of human tragedy, and it's staggering.

The -- you know, just in the last 24 hours, we've seen the terrible story of as many, what, 45 or 50 people, many of them children, killed in a school by an airstrike. There's questions in the press about the implementation of the chemical weapons commitment and agreement, which the implementation it seems to have fallen behind schedule -- behind calendar, behind schedule.

And obviously the fighting goes on with an intensity, shall we say, that is unmatched by diplomacy or anything else. What can we add, to basically flesh -- flesh this out before we -- we assess U.S. interests? You're the former intel hand, what would you say you, if you were teeing up the meeting, what else would you add to that, Paul?

PILLAR: I'd add two things, Richard. One is that in recent months, to put it quite simply, the regime seems to be winning, in comparison with the tide of battle of a year or so before. And the other thing I would add, is the ...

HAASS: Can I interrupt you for a second? When you say winning, drill down, does winning mean gaining control of territory? Does winning mean winning over, if one were to quote-unquote take a poll, that they would have greater support, however enthusiastic or reluctant? What does winning mean?

PILLAR: The very narrow sense of control over territory. All right, and the other thing I'd add, Richard, is that the problem all along of the opposition being plagued by division, and from our standpoint, being plagued by, including a lot of extreme and violent people, that we wouldn't want to play golf with, is still there in spades. And I think those are two critical ingredients in talking about where we go from here.

DUNNE: I would just add one aspect to the humanitarian picture. About 5.5 million of these people who are being affected by lack of access to healthcare, the fighting, starvation in some cases, are children. So it's a disaster that goes well beyond just -- just simple -- simple numbers.

I'd also point out that the U.N. office of the humanitarian coordinator has asked for some $2.5 billion in assistance from the international community. Only about $430 million of that has been delivered so far. Now there obviously are some bilateral aid efforts, which are very important, including the U.S. effort. But that is having a serious impact on what's going on inside Syria.

HAASS: This I understand is the problem, a lack of response, or a lack of absorptive capacity, or both?

DUNNE: I think it's -- I think it's a little bit of both, and it's also part -- partly due to the fact that the regime is inhibiting access by humanitarian agencies and the United Nations to actually deliver this aid inside the borders, which is another very serious problem.

I'd just add one other thing. The international dimensions of this crisis, you have an almost unprecedented number of outside actors who are backing one horse or another in these -- in these -- in these fights, and it's beginning to spill over the borders.

HAASS: I want to get to that in a second, which is when we talk about the -- the stakes, if you will. Ryan, anything we want to add to the setting?

CROCKER: I would -- I would just add an historical note, which makes most Americans flinch, we don't do history. Why is Syria hard? Why, when we said Bashar must go, Bashar didn't go? Because this regime has been preparing for what is unfolding now, for the last three decades, ever since 1982 and Hama, when Hafez al-Assad's brother, Rifaat, surrounded the city and eliminated Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, along with somewhere north of 15,000 innocent Sunni civilians.

The regime knew that a day of reckoning might come, and they have spent 30 plus years getting ready for it, with a formidable intelligence, security, and military complex. They also know that when it came, they would be fighting for their existence as a minority community.

The other thing out of 1982 was a radicalized -- radicalized elements in the Sunni community that you did not find elsewhere in the region. Americans barely remember Hama. No Syrian will ever forget it, Sunni or Alawite, so that the opposition quickly took on a radical Islamic coloration, has its roots back in Hama. We did not quite get that then, I wonder if we get it now.

HAASS: Let me ask just a couple other questions, just so I understand, everybody else does, some of the setting. To what extent is the chaos of Syria and the suffering, if you will, neighborhood-ized, or localized, or regionalized, and so big chunks of the society are still experiencing something that at least resembles a degree of normalcy? But to what extent is this just pervasive now, across the entire scope of the country?

CROCKER: The violence, obviously, is very, very widespread, but as all of us, and that's most people in this room that I recognize, who have been in war zones, know it is not all murder, mayhem, pillage and plunder, every place, every hour.

I'm sure we're all in touch with people in Syria. Yes, there are relatively quiet places along the coast for the Alawis, or areas of Damascus that are reasonably peaceful, and elsewhere in the country. So like any conflict in the region that I've experienced, this is, as awful as it is, this is not total mass warfare that engulfs the entire country.

HAASS: And when we cite the statistics about this, and homelessness, and the rest, refugees, to what extent have the Alawis essentially been largely immune from this, as opposed to part-- suffering at an equal level, or to what extent does this almost entirely, if you will, a reality for other groups within the country?

PILLAR: Well the Alawis certainly have not been immune in terms of carrying a lot of the fighting load for the regime, and there's a lot of reported resentment, and unease within the Alawi community, about -- about the regime, partly for that reason, the cost that they pay.

"Why, when we said Bashar must go, Bashar didn't go? Because this regime has been preparing for what is unfolding now, for the last three decades, ever since 1982 and Hama."
—Ryan Crocker

HAASS: Go ahead.

DUNNE: Sorry, I would just add that up until at least last year, the Alawi areas along the coast, I mean, were almost virtually untouched by the war. I think as this has become more sectarian, more violent, we're starting to see more attacks in areas controlled by regime supporters, and I think that trend is only going to increase.

HAASS: Before I turn to the stakes, I just want to understand one other thing. Paul mentioned that before -- could we speak for a minute or two about the opposition, its size, its composition, and its -- or the various strains, if you will, within it as best we know as outsiders? Because I've seen a lot asserted, and I just want to make sure that we -- that we have something of a collective handle, as best we can read, the opposition.

PILLAR: I would hesitate to try to even put numbers on it. I think the qualitative attributes rather than the quantitative ones are the ones that we have to bear in mind, which involve the distinctions between political leadership, mainly in exile, and you know, men with the guns on the ground, which are two, you know, very different things.

And among the men with the guns on the ground, you have virtually as wide a spectrum as you can imagine, between those that we might even consider playing golf with, and at the other end, to pick the group that has played a very major, unfortunately, role, ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Shams, are sometimes rendered the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which is the group that's so extreme and so nasty that even Al-Qaeda doesn't want to have anything to do with it anymore.

HAASS: (Inaudible), and in just in terms of scale, are we talking about hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands?

PILLAR: Of fighters? I think we're talking about thousands probably, but not tens of thousands.

CROCKER: And I would say based on experience in other conflicts involving irregulars, it depends on the day, who's taking their gun out, and who isn't.

HAASS: OK, so let's talk about the stakes. The humanitarian states are, I think if you will, painfully self-evident. This is a tragedy on a -- on a -- on a scale that alas, distinguishes itself. That is here (ph).

Let's -- let's talk though about the strategic stakes, whether it's in terms of influence in Syria, spillover effects, either direct spillover effects because of fighting or because of refugees, or strategic, if you will, spillover effects. What's -- what's at stake here, and what's -- what's so far, if you will, the calculus of the strategic consequences of -- of -- of Syria? Want to take it?

PILLAR: Well I would say three things in particular. One we've already dwelled on is the humanitarian situation, which you, at the outset, very nicely summed up in terms of the sheer magnitude of it.

The second one I would focus on is extremist violence, and the export of it is something we need to focus on very much. And the third, which you ...

HAASS: Export, in what sense of the word?

PILLAR: In the sense of fighters, in particular, but we also have to worry about material, but I'm talking mainly about individuals, who as has been the case with previous conflicts that have become salient jihads for the kinds of people I'm worrying about.

Which was certainly the case in Afghanistan, which has been the case, to lesser degrees, in places like Bosnia and Chechnya, which became the case in Iraq, that certainly has become the case in Syria as well.

And we see some of our friends and partners elsewhere in the Middle East, particularly the Jordanians and the Saudis conspicuously worried about exactly that, to the point that they have taken additional legal and security measure to try and deal with violent sorts that might have originated among their own citizenry, but are now perhaps coming back.

We need to worry about that because there is a strong inclination for anti-American violence. And the third thing that I would just mention, which we touched on briefly, is -- is the non-proliferation aspect. It wasn't something we started with, but it's become an issue because of the CW-matter. And we do have a stake in successfully pursuing that.

DUNNE: I would add to that we're seeing in practically every country that borders on Syria now, signs of political and violent tension. We're certainly seeing that -- seeing that in Lebanon, where there have been Syria-related violence that has -- that has broken out.

The wars in Iraq and Syria are virtually merging and it's become sort of a cross-border -- it has a cross-border aspect to it as ISIS fighters in particularly go back and forth across the border. And what's going on in Syria has helped embolden a lot of Prime Minister Maliki's opponents, and the armed opposition to his government.

Then we can talk about the humanitarian strains, I mean when I was last in Jordan, they were estimating that approximately 20 percent of their population was made up of Syrian refugees, and that was -- that was about a year ago.

The population is even -- of Syrian refugees is even higher now, and that has huge social and financial costs for Jordan for example, but it's also been an excuse that is used by the government to delay political reforms. So there's that aspect to it as well, and I think -- I think you're seeing this in pretty much in one aspect or another, in pretty much all of their neighbors.

CROCKER: I will just add on, because I don't think it can be said strongly enough or often enough, the metastasizing of Al-Qaeda, and whether or not ISIS is repudiated -- repudiated by Al-Qaeda, central or not, it is generically the same thing.

I would call it Al-Qaeda 3.0, and I would steal that without attribution, but I can't, because Linda Robinson, who mentioned it to me, is sitting right over there. The impact in Iraq is obvious. ISIS owns Fallujah and much of Anbar.

One consequence that could be very far-reaching is the fact that Anbari's couldn't vote yesterday in the election. No polling stations because of the security situation. So whatever the outcome of the Iraqi election, Sunnis are going to once again feel disenfranchised and underrepresented, with what consequences that may bring, we don't know.

The other point I'd make is we could see the beginning of a perfect storm here. The rise of violent Islamic radicalism and the refugee problem. And I remember my days in Lebanon, the radicalization of the Palestinian refugee communities.

We saw it in Jordan, Black September, we saw it in Lebanon, the civil war, and subsequently we could see it again in Lebanon and in Jordan as young Syrian refugees who feel they have no future and no hope, are coopted, or organized into radical movements that will further the destabilization of their host countries, as the Palestinian refugee population did.

DUNNE: Let me ask you about two other strategic consequences, which are often part of the conversation. One is given the involvement of external parties, that this is one of the battlefields, if you will, which Iran's relationship with its neighbors is being determined, and thus far at least, it's strengthening Iran's hand in the region, one point.

Secondly, that because of what the United States is for the most part chosen not to do, that this has increased the tendency of many decision-makers in the Middle East to basically say we have got to make our decisions increasingly apart from what -- from the United States, and from U.S. considerations.

Simply because the United States is not prepared, right or wrong, and we'll get to that in a minute, to play a substantial, much less decisive, role. That this is, if you will, contributing to a post-American Middle East.

PILLAR: Well the first one, I think I'd turn it around, and say we ought to think about it not just about this being -- Syria being a playing field in a larger contest with someone else like Iran, but rather what can the outsiders do to improve the horrible situation we've just been describing on the Syrian playing field?

HAASS: We'll get to that in a second.

PILLAR: And in my judgment I think we made a mistake in not thinking about it that way.

HAASS: OK. What about on the second point, about that, rightly or wrongly, fairly or not, but the perception of, if you will, U.S. minimalism and what it's doing and what it's chosen to do, that whether it's the Iranians, the Saudis, others, have essentially taken a larger read on that situation, which has then certain consequences, not just for Syria, but for the region more broadly.

CROCKER: I think there's something very much to that. The Saudis, I believe, very much want us to see us playing a more active role. They are concerned that our relative disengagement benefits their adversaries and ours, such as Iran and Hezbollah.

The Qataris and the Kuwaitis are playing roles that are often less than helpful. If we are seeking to check them, I would say so far without a great deal of success. So we need to be more engaged if we want to see our traditional allies in that region be working for the good, and not the opposite.

PILLAR: And I think ...

HAASS: Go ahead, you said something, Charles.

DUNNE: And I would add, I think, the Saudis in particular see this as almost an existential issue for them, back since the invasion of Iraq. And I think they see this as part of a wider conflict with Iran, and are willing to go to almost any lengths to fight that battle with us or without us.

And I know that the Saudis were simply apoplectic about the refusal of the United States to take military action, air strikes when it said it would. That relationship has deteriorated rather badly because of -- because of Syria. So you know, unless United States exerts some leadership on this front, it's going to become even worse.

HAASS: Well that's the perfect segue. So let's not go through the past. We are where we are where we are, and we might have taken certain actions at various times, militarily, diplomatically, what have you, but again, we are where we are. You can't choose your inbox. This is the inbox we've got today.

So let's just break it down into three areas. Let's begin with the question of something the United States has done very little of, which is providing support for those elements of the opposition, to use Paul's inelegant phrase, we're prepared to play golf with.

The -- let's revisit that. Is that -- one, is it -- is it desirable to -- is it -- are these people identifiable? Are there enough people who are identifiable who have goals or principles that we could live with?

Do they have any sort of capacity militarily? Could they have? What would be the consequences of doing more for them, intelligence, arming, whatever? What are the pros and cons of essentially ramping up in a substantial way military support for selective oppositionists?

PILLAR: It certainly behooves us to try to make those distinctions, and I have no doubt that my former colleagues in the intelligence community have a very big and difficult task trying to sort out that very messy part of the order of battle.

I think even if we can halfway sort it out, we run into a couple of recurring problems. One, people move around, and two, ordinance moves around. There's been some attention recently of course to the group, just to use as an example, this group Harakat Hazm, which is the ones that somehow got their hands on the U.S.-made TOW antitank missiles.

And by most descriptions, they seem to be a relatively reasonable bunch of people, fairly disciplined, and fairly effective, but the fact is we know remarkably little about, you know, their political inclinations. And if they were suddenly to be part of a power structure in a new Syria, I don't think we'd be able to answer the question of just what direction it would go in.

DUNNE: I was in a conversation with a senior official who deals with Syria, this was over a year ago, and one of the things she said in this conversation was that even at that point, the United States intelligence agencies knew enough about these groups to make informed decisions about providing arms or -- or -- or other support. So I really think that can be done. I think it's a bit of a straw man to say that we don't know about them. The other thing I'd point out ...

HAASS: And, excuse me, but enough arms to enough people that we think it could actually have a meaningful impact on the -- on the ground?

DUNNE: I think it could have a meaningful impact on the ground, even at this really late date. I mean the provision of antitank missiles is one good step. The rebels themselves have articulated a pretty broad agenda of the kinds of things they need from small arms, ammunition, to MANPADS to attack the Syrian Army helicopters and others that are dropping the barrel bombs.

And I do think that we know enough about these groups at this point to be able to make some of these informed decisions, and I would also think that we can help empower these groups by actually doing this in the first place.

Because what we've seen in this conflict is arms and money flowing to -- and influence flowing to those groups that are -- that are, you know, willing to use it. In other words we -- what we know is that in some areas, the more radical groups have been driven out when the armed opposition has received enough funds to pay their fighters for example, and that's another thing that we could -- we could help them do.

CROCKER: Well finally then, maybe we'll have kind of a debate. Yezid Sayigh had a very interesting piece I think on Monday on the Syrian opposition, and how it unites, disunites, morphs, shifts agendas, shifts shape.

It is a kaleidoscope of a picture, and we are not on the ground to be able to sort it out, doubling our difficulty in knowing who's who, aiming for what. And as we have learned, if you provide arms, and here we're not talking about small arms.

There are plenty of those to go around. We're talking about things, as Charles suggests, MANPADS. Well we did that in Afghanistan, if anybody remembers. We're still trying to get all those stingers back.

The risk to our allies and to ourselves, providing weapons of that nature, anti-tank weapons, anti-air weapons, I think can be very considerable in such a fluid landscape that the opposition represents. So I think we'd better be very, very careful about how we proceed, with whom, and with what.

HAASS: One of the historical alternatives to providing arms to others, because you're either -- you're worried what's going to happen to them, either because what those people will do, whether the arms will then fall into wrong hands, or worse hands, is obviously to use arms yourselves.

And that way you keep far greater control over them. You never let go of them, and you use them for purposes you've decided are desirable purposes. So is it possible to design operations? I can imagine two types of operations.

One in principle would be operations militarily that would have a largely humanitarian purpose, large zones or what have you to help get in supplies, protect populations, what have you. And then I can imagine military operations designed to either weaken government forces, weaken or strength -- weaken or strengthen selective opposition forces.

Obviously it's a step we haven't been prepared to take, but given what we talked about the stakes and the possible terrible nightmare scenarios, what about revisiting the question of direct uses of military force, again for the humanitarian or for more traditional military strategic purposes?

PILLAR: If it's strictly for the humanitarian purpose, it's possible to envision something like that, but I would quickly hasten to add there is a slippery slope dimension here, where even from the standpoint of our own force protection needs, things could very easily escalate into something else.

But I'd add a couple more strategic, and kind of historical, points to bear in mind on the broader question, Richard. When we talked a moment ago about how the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs among others are looking at, you know, U.S. inaction, and feeling frustrated, the Saudis see this as a sectarian conflict, you know, it's Sunnis against Alawis and the Shi'a.

United States has no interest whatsoever in taking sides or being seen as taking sides in a sectarian conflict. And secondly, I would just recall that the last time we did decide to get directly involved in a prolonged civil war in this part of the world, I'm thinking of Lebanon, early 1980's, it didn't turn out very well for us, and it didn't end the war.

CROCKER: I would, if I could, just endorse that, because I was there, 1982, '83, early 1984. I was there when the embassy blew, I was there when the Marine barracks went up. I was there to watch the ignominious withdrawal of our forces subsequently.

And we paid a price for that for decades, because the Syrians and the Iranians absorbed the lesson that you may not be able to outfight them, but you can outwit them if they're playing on your field by your rules.

And that's exactly what we'd be doing, their field, their rules. Whatever those may be, we don't begin to understand them. And the slippery slope, I could not agree more. Remember Somalia. We went in with the humanitarian intervention, and we wound up with Black Hawk Down.

DUNNE: I'll be the one to make the argument for limited military strikes against regime targets. When we drew a red line, we said any major use or even movement of chemical weapons would draw military response by the United States.

Obviously that red line was crossed, and we decided not to go there. There are, even with the chemical weapons agreement, still instances, as we've discussed, about chemicals being used against civilian populations.

We have ample justification for revisiting the red line if we want to do that, and I think we could achieve effects on the battlefield by striking, for example, air fields that the barrel bomb attacks are launched from, striking concentrations of armor and artillery, and without putting boots on the ground. And I think it's past time to revisit that.

HAASS: And imagine we were to do that, and that would presume -- so the question is presumably that weakens the capability of the government to press its fight. Then the question I then have is how do -- how do other parties react, and who benefits?

And when I -- the first question is, do others step up, say, support for the government, other outsiders? Does the government do things it's not doing now? And to the extent you weaken the government, how do you increase the odds that those who benefit from it are not those elements of the opposition you don't want to see benefiting?

"The last time we did decide to get directly involved in a prolonged civil war in this part of the world, I'm thinking of Lebanon, early 1980's, it didn't turn out very well for us. And it didn't end the war."
—Paul Pillar

CROCKER: Well, Mr. National Security Adviser, you finally posed the key question ...

HAASS: Only took me an hour, I'm getting better at it.

(LAUGHTER)

CROCKER: What outcome do we seek here? What is optimum for an end to the suffering of the Syrian people, regional stability, and America's strategic interests? Is it a toppling of the Assad regime?

The Russians think we're completely nuts. Do we really want to see an Al-Qaeda affiliated government running Syria from Damascus? So we need to have a discussion of what outcomes, before we talk about which means.

HAASS: OK, well let's do that. I mean let's put -- if I put the cart before the horse, let me then ask the question, which is -- because we haven't talked about diplomacy yet, and a political and technic -- at least in principle, whatever it is we do indirectly with the military or intelligence support, or whatever we might do directly, is part of a larger strategy.

And it seems to me one strategy is to oust the government. A second strategy is -- and just, full stop. Another would be, which is kind of our -- in some ways was our Libya strategy. Another would be to oust the government but increase the odds it were succeeded or replaced by something else. Another would be simply to try to stop things.

You might say those -- since those are impossible or desirable in some ways, what we really want to do is simply try to get a reduction, if not a cessation, in fighting, for both strategic, and above all humanitarian reasons. Where is it then -- what should we be aiming at at this point?

CROCKER: Well having really pissed off my boss, I will ...

HAASS: Not for the first time in your career, if I remember.

(LAUGHTER)

CROCKER: Nor the last. I would say that, you know, there are some -- it's not the American way, but there are some situations that we cannot decisively effect. I'm from the West. Every now and then we get mega forest fires like the one in Yosemite last summer. You can't put it out, no way you can extinguish it. You don't even try. You contain it.

"I think we could achieve effects on the battlefield by striking, for example, air fields that the barrel bomb attacks are launched from, striking concentrations of armor and artillery, and without putting boots on the ground."
—Charles Dunne

And I think where we are in Syria right now is dealing with a situation where no reasonable intervention by us is going to affect the outcome, and it may make it worse. Because your point on if we take some of these logical, reasonable measures, what are the consequences? What does Hezbollah do? What does the regime do? What does Iran do?

Because for Iran, this is an existential battle too. They -- they will do whatever it takes to see that that regime does not fall, and we have to consider what whatever it takes might be, if we remove a certain conventional capability...

HAASS: But just to interrupt you, but there's two separate considerations here. One is that no matter what we do, bringing about the fall of the regime will either be extremely difficult, or impossible, simply because of its tenacity and its outside sources of support.

The other is if we do everything we can to see the regime ousted, we might succeed, and then be careful what you wish for. And I'm trying to get -- I'm just trying to parse what is the argument you're making?

CROCKER: It would be that, be careful that you don't wind up with what you wish for. And in the meanwhile -- the meantime, do everything you can to shore up Syria's neighbors, and contain the fire, so that it does not completely engulf Lebanon, Jordan, and Iran.

HAASS: But the consequences of that -- sorry for interrupting, but is it not the consequence of what you're saying, that something like what we've seen would then continue within Syria for months, if not years, to come?

CROCKER: It's hard to predict. We may see this settle into a certain kind of stalemate that might then open doors for both diplomacy vis-a-vis Syria, and with their regime.

DUNNE: Look, I would just say, I think that the point is very well taken, but I think what we've seen is that inaction on the U.S. part is not going to lead to an outcome that -- any kind of an outcome that we want.

The situation has steadily deteriorated over the last three years, and I'm afraid that if we try to contain it, we are A, not going to succeed, and B, we're going to see much more serious destabilization in -- in neighboring countries.

Having said that, one of the things that we can do, which doesn't even involve military operations, is trying to improve local governance in areas that are now ungoverned or untouched by the regime, shoring up and helping to link the local governing councils, make sure that they're provided with what they need in order to provide services.

It's very difficult in the current humanitarian situation, but it is something where we could focus some attention, and possibly -- possibly do some good.

HAASS: You could possibly do some good, but the -- how would I put it, the ratio of good you can accomplish to bad that would continue would seem to me to be a pretty unattractive ratio, even if you got your wish. Now I'm not arguing against those things. It's always nice to achieve some good at the margins, but let's be honest, what you suggest would be at the margins.

CROCKER: If I could add ...

DUNNE: ... margins, but it can be ...

DUNNE: Sorry, but it can be, you know, it can be combined with other steps on the -- on the diplomatic front. For example, trying to shore up the outside opposition, and help them build meaningful linkages with the fighters on the inside.

That's extremely difficult and it's been very frustrating for the administration, but I think a bigger effort can be made there, and that could actually be of some major assistance, even if you want to go the route of a diplomatic and a political solution.

PILLAR: But the Hippocratic principle, first doing no harm is something we need to keep uppermost in mind. And I think even if we could do some good in terms of the balance of forces in aiding the opposition, the net effect, in the -- in the midterm might be simply to extend the war, given that the other side is not going to give up, and given the trends that I mentioned earlier.

But if I could just say one more thing in terms of how -- this doesn't mean just doing nothing. The diplomatic side is important. When we're talking about the regime's main outside supporters, we're talking mainly about the Russians and the Iranians, neither one of whom, I would submit, is wedded to the indefinite tenure of Bashar Assad.

They've got a variety of interests that could be served by, you know, some other arrangement in which Assad doesn't, you know, get to be elected and stays here for another seven years. But they're not -- neither the Iranians nor the Russians I would expect are going to do the sorts of things we'd like them to do under pressure.

You know, we were just talking a moment ago about how, you know, we maybe see this as part of a larger battlefield, and other people will draw conclusions about how we need to, you know, stick up for our side of some larger struggle.

Well if -- if our thoughts can run in those directions, then so can the Iranians and the Russians. I think if we buy some time, there is a real possibility of both of those outside players doing some more good and less bad in the not too distant future.

In the case of the Iranians, we and they are appropriately focused on something else right now, and that's the nuclear negotiations, and if we can successfully conclude those, then more diplomatic opportunities will open up.

HAASS: We and the Russians are also focused on something ...

PILLAR: We -- exactly, and -- and I -- maybe I'm overly optimistic in saying that, you know, a few months from now the Ukraine standoff isn't going to be more intense and a hotter topic, and a hotter problem than it is right now. We've got Ukrainian elections that will take place on May 25th, and maybe that will be one of the principle events.

HAASS: I'll open it up to our members in one minute. Let me just ask one last question, I just want to understand, though, this last angle, which is if we are going to try to introduce a diplomatic dimension with Iran and Russia as participants, as supporters of the regime.

It seems to me that implicit, if not explicit, in that is we drop what had been the U.S. diplomatic approach, which is Assad must go, if you will, on day one of the diplomacy, and you're willing to have him remain in office for some considerable amount of time.

And I guess the question is, you know, you made one -- I can't remember if it was you, Paul, or Ryan, made the point that the Russians and the Iranians are not necessarily wedded to the indefinite or permanent place of Bashar al-Assad in Syrian politics, but at some point you either have to give them an incentive, or pressure, so they would see an alternative as either desirable or necessary.

And so what is it -- diplomatic, if tomorrow John Kerry said I'm going to launch a new phase of diplomacy towards Syria, it's hard to imagine that a secretary of state alone, no matter how creative or determined, could change the calculations.

There would have to be other elements of U.S. policy, so -- which again brings back questions of military action, arming opposition, or am I missing something in this conversation?

PILLAR: Well that's where I mentioned buying time, and Mr. Kerry appropriately will focus on the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and with doing something about Ukraine to try and get that to simmer down. And if both of those things can show some success, than he'd be in a better position to do what you're hypothesizing.

DUNNE: I would just say that to incentivize both Russia and Iran, you're more likely to do that by indicating that you're willing to change the military calculus of the -- of the regime, and that's why I think a menu of limited military options needs to be on the table again. That might hasten their desire to see somebody else sitting in the presidential palace besides Bashar.

CROCKER: I would say that that would suggest a bottom line that I don't think exists in Moscow or Tehran. They may be prepared to see Bashar go, they are not prepared to see an Alawi ascendancy go.

And I think our -- what we would have to do, if we're going to pursue a serious diplomatic dialogue with either or both countries. We would have to implicitly recognize that that is their position.

And we might have to eat some hard crow in perhaps accepting that as bad, as this is awful, as this regime has been, there is something worse, which are the elements of the opposition that oppose them.

And the final thing I'd say on that, because this is also about diplomacy, there are indications as I think Paul pointed out, that the Alawi community is not exactly ecstatic about the way Bashar has run this fight.

And anything we can do to be in diplomatic contact -- like I say, people move. They come to Beirut -- everybody comes to Beirut. To see what the mood is in the Alawi community, and whether there might be some potential there from within to say we're not going, but he is.

HAASS: OK, let me open it up to our members. Wait for microphone, keep your questions short. Remember, by the way, this is on the record, anything you say can and will be used against you. Sir? I don't have my glasses, I should probably recognize people.

QUESTION: 92 percent of Syria's declared chemical weapons have now either been destroyed, or removed from the country. I wondered if the panelists could speculate on how Assad thinks about the remainder, and what the conversations are like between him and the Russian government on the subject of finishing up the job.

DUNNE: Sounds like an intelligence question.

PILLAR: There was the issue, and in fact there was a nice article in the Post about it this morning, an issue about what to do with the remaining buildings, the physical structures where the production facilities were located.

Now early on, the organization implementing this actually destroyed some of the equipment with sledge hammers, and even crude means, but now the regime says they want to keep the buildings intact, and repurpose them.

So the remaining 8 percent apparently is leverage to be used by the regime in trying to resolve this issue. How it's going to be resolved, I don't know, but I'm pretty sure that is the purpose.

HAASS: So you think that the regime and the Russians have made a strategic decision to basically get out of the chemical business?

PILLAR: It's hard to argue with the record that's taken place so far, and I don't see even if those buildings were left intact, you know, how they actually would be able to use them for this purpose.

CROCKER: I would add a more -- I never thought I could be more cynical than Paul, but just to make two points. First, as I think we all know, Assad agreed to get rid of his chemical weapons, because he doesn't need them.

You know, they're irrelevant to his prosecution of the war. He can -- he can kill Sunnis far more easily and in greater numbers with things like barrel bombs, than with chemical weapons. Second, he can give up that remaining 8 percent. He can -- he can give up the whole program, because he knows he can reconstitute it later -- at a later date.

DUNNE: Right, and I would also point out that, you know, you don't even need a chemical weapons program when you have chlorine gas in your arsenal, which is not prohibited by the OPCW, the chemical weapons convention.

HAASS: Barbara?

QUESTION: If memory serves, the Lebanese Civil War finally ended with the Taif agreement, the Saudis and the Iranians came together and said enough is enough. The Saudis have been very, very intransigent in terms of dealing with the Iranians on this, fighting, and willing to fight to the last Syrian, it seems.

What is it going to take to get the Saudis to agree to some sort of diplomatic resolution of this? What is it going to take for them to talk seriously to this Iranian government? And is -- I mean, would that make the difference?

DUNNE: Well -- go ahead.

PILLAR: Sorry, no please, go.

(LAUGHTER)

PILLAR: I mean the Lebanon Civil War after some 14 years got to Taif, not only because the Saudis, and in fact the Syrians, we should recall, were directly involved. It was at least as much the Syrians as the Iranians.

Not just -- or not even so much because there were changes of heart in Damascus or Riyadh, but because of sheer exhaustion by the direct participants in Lebanon. And it's a grim scenario to think that this civil war in Syria might go on anywhere near 14 years, given all the tremendous humanitarian disaster that Richard described at the outset.

But the exhaustion of the internal participants, I think was the key factor there, and it's going to have to become a factor here in Syria as well.

CROCKER: Let me just add, like you, Barbara, I spent all too much of my life in Lebanon, including that particular period. The Taif Accords, of course, did not end the Lebanese Civil War. A Syrian victory ended the Lebanese Civil War, or that phase of the Civil War.

And I know because I came in right after it, after Aoun had been forced out of the presidential palace, and into the French embassy, Elias Harawi, very much enthralled with the Syrians, installed in the temporary presidential palace, and Syrian troops were running the show to the extent that the Lebanese forces agreed to disarm because they knew they were beat.

That is probably the way this war will end, not -- not through some grand accord between Saudis and Iranians, which are not going to get in any case. It's going to end because of what happens on the ground.

HAASS: Aberdeen (ph), the gentleman to the third from the last one there.

QUESTION: Ryan, you know Syria better than anyone in this town. In this discussion, there was no ...

HAASS: Put the microphone a bit closer.

QUESTION: ... there was no mention of certain communities in Syria. We have the Christians, we have the Druze, we have the Ismailis, and also we have the Kurds, and they probably make up maybe over 30 percent of the Syrian population, yet none of us talked about it. It was mainly Sunni-Shi'a. But also in this conflict, there are what I call secular forces, nationalist forces, that are on both sides of the struggle.

CROCKER: Very, very true. As those of us who know Syria know, the Alawi regime as a minority was seen as something of a protector of the Christian communities, a number of whom had their church hierarchies in Syria, because they felt secure there. Well, they're not feeling secure any longer, particularly in any area that the regime does not still control.

The Druze are very interesting, and you rightly point out that there are divisions among communities. Walid Jumblatt, a Lebanese Druze, but essentially the leader of the Druze communities in both Lebanon and Syria, has come out vociferously against the regime.

That is not a universally shared view among those who have to live under it. So you see the Druze divided, and the Ismailis, as far as I can tell, doing what the Ismailis traditionally do, and very wisely, keep your head down, and just stay out of it.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thanks for a very interesting discussion. Richard, during the discussion, you mentioned a couple of options, objectives. And one was perhaps to take down the current government in Syria. The second one was to take it down and influence a follow-on government that would be acceptable to the United States.

Ambassador Crocker has mentioned that there are certainly worse options than the government -- the current government. I wonder, do we actually have the capability to either influence or engineer an arrangement by which a follow-on government would emerge that would be acceptable to the United States?

PILLAR: I think our ability to engineer such things is far less than discussions here in Washington would often lead us to believe. And my only other comment is, I mean look at -- look at Iraq.

DUNNE: And I would -- look, I would just add to that, I mean I don't think we should sell our capabilities short, we do have good contacts with the external Syrian opposition. We know more about -- more and more about what's going on with the -- with the rebels fighting on the ground.

I don't think we can necessarily engineer a government that we'd all be satisfied with following on with Bashar, but what we can do is help engineer a more professional, more coordinated Syrian external opposition movement that is, as I said before, better linked in with those who are doing the fighting on the ground, and I think that could make an important political difference, and help set the stage for a post-Assad government.

CROCKER: I'd like to go back to a point that you raised, Richard, initially, and that Charles also spoke to, which is the plight of the refugees and the IDPs. I will say up front, I am on the board of Mercy Corps, so the following is an unpaid humanitarian announcement.

We've been taken up in the politics and the security aspects of the situation. The humanitarian catastrophe, as you said in your initial remarks, is almost beyond imagination. And it has potentially very destabilizing consequences as I mentioned earlier.

It can also lead to a Syria that even post-conflict bears the seeds of a new conflict because of the suffering that these IDPs went through. So you know, we -- $430 million of a $2.5 billion international pledge has been met.

We should be putting a lot of our diplomatic muscle into seeing that those pledges are met, and that those organizations with the capacity to do so, which includes Mercy Corps, have the resources to ease the plight of refugees externally and internally displaced persons.

In addition to the humanitarian obligation, there will be, I guarantee it, there will be political consequences if we fail in this. And by the way, Mercy Corps just got thrown out of Damascus.

QUESTION: At the height of the Rwandan genocide, I was invited to an NSC briefing by the people working that issue, of whom, by the way, the chief was Susan Rice. And the whole thrust was that we couldn't do anything about Rwanda itself, let's prevent it from spilling over into Burundi.

So now I sense something of the same thing in this administration now. So let's assume that all the people in this room could agree on a set of objectives and a policy agenda that we think would achieve them.

Who is -- in this government, is in the market for that paper? Who's looking to do more, and to do it more effectively?

DUNNE: Well, I'm not sure anyone is, really. I mean I think, you know, I think that there's a fundamental problem which we kind of touched on here, which is we don't have an objective in Syria right now, and until we do have an objective, is it a post-Assad government, is it just keeping the fighting going until the regime is sufficiently weak?

Whatever it is, that needs to be decided first, and I don't have the impression that there's a sense of urgency to develop that sense of what the U.S. would like to see as the end game. So in answer to your question, I -- you know, I can't see who's in the market for that paper right now.

HAASS: Just because people aren't necessarily in markets for paper doesn't mean people ought not to generate and push them, government is as much about policy and intellectual entrepreneurship. And also, the default option of not doing things is as significant and as consequential an option as doing things.

And if one comes out to basically allow things to largely drift, it should be, shall we say, a considered judgment that that is the least bad option, other than the -- you know, reminds me of my friend, Al (ph) Carncel (ph), used to have three boxes on his desk, in, out, and too hard.

And there's -- parking this issue in the too hard box is tempting, but it's as consequential as anything that has much more agency, if you will, to it. It's not an argument for doing more, but it's an argument for being just as rigorous about, if you will, largely more of the same.

The tendency in government and elsewhere is to be more critical of options put forward, rather than options that we already -- that we already have.

HAASS: In the back.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIC)

HAASS: Got to take the microphone, Lionel (ph).

QUESTION: Hard for me to get up. The answer to Tom's question is Susan Rice, very briefly, that he asked a question. The second comment is that barrel bombing is a war crime against the Geneva Convention, and they ought to brought down by cruise missiles, directed to helicopter.

You don't need the no-fly zone. Through the ear of the commandante (ph) if you want, that will give Putin the message he needs as well. I'm sorry I'm somewhat disabled, but those are my questions. Does anybody consider those these days? Thank you.

HAASS: Well Charles, you're the closest to that. So basically you're arguing for limited military strikes that would both weaken the regime militarily, it would probably excite the opposition, it would send signals to others, and it would, not in and of itself, defeat the regime.

But it would change the mix, against which at least conceivably, diplomacy and other things might have a better chance of prospering, and that seems to me the argument. It's not so much that you have a military victory.

But if you had more a military component to your policy, it's at least arguable that that would change some other calculations and prospects, not without risk though, of what it might lead to, or -- or, you know, pressures it would create. Fair enough?

PILLAR: Fair enough. Ryan has already alluded to the issues we have to keep uppermost in mind when we talk about MANPADS, man portable air defense systems. I would just add, although there's been some talk about a possible technical way of, you know, disabling them so they would be used only by the intended recipients, I don't know how feasible that is or not.

But the thing I would add is we always have a tendency when this sort of issue comes up -- this particular issue comes up, to think about the war in Afghanistan, and how much difference the stingers made in defeating the Soviets.

We aren't fighting the Soviets in Syria. The opposition isn't fighting the Soviets. They aren't fighting an external, imperial force like the Red Army. They are fighting a regime that is there to fight to the death, because that's their home.

And so I don't think, even if you took the risks with something like conveying MANPADS to shoot down the helicopters that are dropping the barrel bombs, that this is going to have anywhere near the political effect that parallels what we saw in the Afghan War.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIC)

HAASS: That's the argument of direct military action, as opposed to indirect provision (ph).

PILLAR: Well that raises all the slippery slopes of getting directly involved ourselves.

CROCKER: Let me add to that, if I could, in my experience, because I watched this too in Lebanon, when the USS Missouri opened fire into the Shouf mountains to neutralize the Syrian forces and their Lebanese allies, to no effect whatsoever, leaving us looking completely impotent ...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIC)

CROCKER: Yeah, that's great, but ...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIC)

CROCKER: And that's great, but what if, and I think it is a overwhelming probability, what if none of that at all has a significant impact on the regime's ability to prosecute the war? Then what have we got?

We intervened militarily, it had no effect, and do we then take, as Paul suggests, the next step? Now I'd like to add one thing to what you said, because I think this is important, and we didn't discuss it. War crimes.

If we're seeking to change attitudes, certainly in Syria, probably in the region, pushing for war crimes designations against individuals on both sides, but particularly the regime, could push the debate within the Alawi community about what their future is, and who should be responsible for it in a way that we haven't been able to do so far.

And I think that that is something this administration should be giving significant concern to. And I would add to the name Susan Rice, that of Samantha Power.

HAASS: I want to get a few more points in, and then I wanna -- I'm going to ask each of the three gentlemen up here to basically make then what he thinks U.S. -- the recommendation for what U.S. policy ought to be. Just there, I saw a hand up right there. Yes.

QUESTION: Ambassador Crocker, my question is to you. I mean the idea usually with diplomacy is that it works when there's a parallel pressure track. So if we're removing this premise of potential military action in whatever form, what about the diplomacy that's underway, where there's already lacking any enforcement action.

Thinking of the chlorine gas attacks that are alleged to have recently occurred in Syria, and the sort of legalistic argument about whether, you know, breaking the chemical weapons convention amounts to actually also invoking the U.S. brokered resolution at the U.N. to remove Syria's chemical weapons.

Coupled with the inability now to enforce even the U.N. resolution on humanitarian access that should be forcing Syria to allow in for the delivery of food. So if you add all those up, what is the premise for diplomacy that you see actually succeeding? How do we get there?

CROCKER: I've given you one example just now. I have had a lot of experience seeing a combination of diplomacy and military muscle. General Swan and I experienced that together in Iraq. Sometimes it can work very effectively, but if you are going to employ military force, you had better be sure it is going to have an impact.

Otherwise you're looking at the situation that Paul and I described back in the early '80s in Lebanon, where the military presence, the use of some force, actually works against you because it is seen by your adversary as being ineffective.

So the first question you've got to ask, is have we got a military option that is acceptable to us, in other words it isn't going to draw us in to a Lebanon or a Somalia, some would say an Iraq as well, not me, before you get any further on in the debate.

It has to be credible, and it has to be effective if -- if you use it. I think we got ourselves into trouble in Syria in the beginning by, you know -- again if I learned nothing else as a diplomat, you better have the means to enforce any announced policy.

And the first debate would have to be about, you know, what military options do we really have, what effect would they have, would that effect it enough to change an adversary's calculation, and what would the consequences be if it didn't? Then you talk about how you combine that with diplomacy.

DUNNE: And again, I think that also gets back to the question of what does the United States government think the end game should be, and that will certainly influence the menu of military options.

Just another question of military options, though, I sort of worry that if we are too cautious about laying out a menu of options, that we might be in a situation down the road, if this conflict deteriorates and spreads further across borders, we're going to be faced with the necessity of taking some sorts of military actions.

But just with a much less palatable menu and under much worse circumstances. So that's kind of at the back of my mind when I'm thinking we should, you know, do more now to change the regime's calculations.

HAASS: Can I just also make clear, I think it's a difference intellectually between thinking of military force and a coercive means, where you're trying to change calculations, which is always tricky, because in some ways it leaves the initiative with the guy on the receiving end, and using military force to bring about certain outcomes.

And so it's one thing to try and use military force to get Mr. Assad, or people around him, to do things differently. It's another you simply say look, we want to take away certain capabilities. We want to shift the military balance somewhat.

We think that -- we want to then, together with certain help directly for the opposition, we believe that could create a different context for diplomacy. Again, I'm not saying necessarily this is what I'm favoring.

But I do think there's a fundamental difference between coercive military force, which is problematic in some ways, really, it's an instrument you can only use if you're willing to be prepared that it won't have the effects you want, and decide whether to leave it at that or escalate.

And military force, which is used, if you will, in a purposeful way, to actually destroy certain things, and change certain balances. And that seems to me, that's the more straightforward use of military force, not easy, not without risk or other potential downsides, but it is a different calculation than coercive military force.

CROCKER: In either case though Richard, I think the point remains the same. You had better be sure going in that the military means you intend to employ for either set of objectives, is going to accomplish those objectives, because if it doesn't you're in a worse place then when you started.

PILLAR: And if I could add, in this case, unless the scenario we're envisioning is an opposition column rolling into Damascus, and pushing out the regime without even the flag of surrender as part of the negotiated arrangement, then ultimately, you know, these two uses of military force in this particular case may amount to the same thing.

HAASS: Well part of it also though, it seems to me, depends upon whether you think you've reached a point where there is or is not the prospect under certain conditions or circumstances or something like a diplomatic, if not solution, at least something of a calming.

And if you think that so much has happened that any -- that any outcome other than a black or white fight to the finish, on all -- it seems to me that leaves you in certain directions. If you think, however, there are outcomes where people might be prepared to settle, or make certain compromises, or either voluntarily or because of outside pressure, then it seems to me you have a slightly larger range of options.

CROCKER: I certainly would agree with the general proposition. I think on that continuum, we certainly have not reached the point where either side, let alone both, are prepared to consider negotiated outcomes.

So the question really becomes what can we and others do to move them in that direction.

HAASS: Zal (ph). Follows up (ph).

QUESTION: A couple of points. One, our ability to predict what the adversary will do under different set of circumstances also very limited, the experience would show. I remember during much of the 1980's, our intelligence predicted that the Soviets would never leave Afghanistan short of victory.

And therefore policy had to be informed by that. And at the end, we actually carried out our policy, with that intent, and didn't care about who got the arms because we didn't think there would be a post-Soviet Afghanistan, because that was -- seemed like a reasonable assumption, but it turned out to be wrong.

And similarly, from the '90s, when -- in the aftermath of the Kuwait war, there was a disastrous humanitarian situation we faced in Iraq in the north, and again, I remember the collective wisdom saying if we went to do a no-fly zone to stop the Iraqi regime forces from coming into the Kurdish area, we would -- there would be a slippery slope, and we will be back into Iraq, we will have to go to Baghdad to deal with it.

And it didn't turn out that way. So I would say we need to be humble on both sides, in terms of predicting. I think the record would show that. So that was -- that was my point.

HAASS: OK. Let me just quickly each ask of you -- OK, we've had this conversation, and in some administrations you have conversations like this, and they say it's been a great meeting, and so we have to repeat the conversation again at our next meeting.

We're not that kind of an administration here, but it shall go nameless. And there's other administrations where actually you have to try to, if not consensus, at least clarity as to choices.

And so the -- so if you were forced to have your measuring (ph) thing (ph), and you got on the elevator with the president, and he said what should we do about Syria, what's your elevator pitch now, after having heard -- participated in and heard this conversation? Paul, we'll start with you.

PILLAR: Well we have a real administration with a real policy, and I admit I don't have recommendations that diverge very much from what we're doing right now. I think that policy reflects some of the things we've discussed here in terms of the limited ability to engineer an outcome, and some of the difficulties in prediction, including the one that Zal (ph) just mentioned.

I would like to see more assistance to the neighboring states with regard to the refugees, partly with the -- in the back of the line, the consideration Ryan mentioned earlier in terms of the -- those being breeding grounds for future extremists.

As far as the diplomacy is concerned, again I would try to concentrate the focus on these other issues that involve the likes of the Russians and Iranians, looking ahead to a later phase, in the not-too-distant-future, when we engage them on this problem we've discussed today.

DUNNE: Well assuming that the outcome that the United States wants to see is a post-Assad future, I would again put on the table firm red lines about certain military actions that the Syrian regime is taking against its own people.

I would develop an effective menu of military responses that could hurt the regime's ability to pursue its war against its own civilians. I would also resolve that the United States really has to exert leadership on the humanitarian front, on the political front, especially with our allies in the Gulf, so that we are more or less coordinating our efforts toward an agreed upon outcome.

And you know, again, I would seriously consider the -- organizing a humanitarian response, that does not depend on the agreement of the government to allow the United Nations -- to allow the United Nations into the country.

CROCKER: First, let's be clear about our goals. Do we seek not only a post-Assad Syria, but a post-Alawi Syria?

HAASS: What do you see? This is your chance for a recommendation.

CROCKER: I think we would be making a grave mistake if our policy and our efforts were aimed at flipping the tables and bringing a Sunni ascendancy to power in Damascus, because of the great likelihood it would be dominated by the worst of the worst.

So first we're gonna have to define that. Second, we have -- whatever goal we decide on, we need to be certain we have the means to achieve it, because we haven't done such a brilliant job so far with our -- our red lines.

Third, we have got to be all in, in support of Syria's neighbors, in every way that makes sense, that they need. Fourth, we've gotta be all in, in support of IDPs and refugees. And there are groups operating inside the country that can deliver assistance if they have the resources. Those would be my points.

HAASS: Interesting. I would just add, having listened to this conversation, I would just highlight two or three things besides the difficulty. One is the power of assumptions, a version of Zal's (ph) point.

Just to make -- there are -- every policy debate, you do a little bit of archaeology, and there's any number of assumptions worth revisiting, and just making sure that you're confident of the difference between assumptions and facts.

One of the rules of the Middle East that I've come to embrace is as bad as things get, they can get worse. And just -- not inevitably, but possibly. And just thinking -- playing chess, and thinking several steps ahead.

And I think the difference there between a post-Assad and a post-Alawi Syria, and what are the real alternatives, what are you prepared to do, what -- what can you do? Be as rigorous, and make sure you're intellectually as demanding of continuity as you are potential change.

I do think there's a bias among policy makers to be tougher on options put forward rather than the option they've -- they've already got. And also, you know, I think Ryan and Paul were both preaching realism here.

There is a difference between conditions and problems, and if you think Syria is a problem, then it leads you to certain types of solutions. If you think Syria's a condition, then it leaves you much more to how do you manage it, and deal with some of the consequences of it.

So one of the first order places to begin is an assessment of what you really think can be accomplished there. We began with the idea that this is hard. It is. You haven't made it much easier, I'm sorry to say. But instructive, thoughtful, a lot of wisdom and experience around here, so thank you all.

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Audio

Is Intervention in Syria the Answer?

Speakers: Ryan Crocker, Charles W. Dunne, and Paul Pillar
Presider: Richard N. Haass

More than three years after the start of the Syrian civil war, debates continue about what role, if any, the United States should play in the...

Video

Is Intervention in Syria the Answer?

Speakers: Ryan Crocker, Charles W. Dunne, and Paul Pillar
Presider: Richard N. Haass

More than three years after the start of the Syrian civil war, debates continue about what role, if any, the United States should play in the...